Article Thumbnail

How QAnon Will Exploit the Coronavirus to Recruit New Conspiracy Theorists

Travis View, the web’s leading QAnon researcher, explains how COVID-19 has inspired the rabid right-wing cult

There are very few personal details Travis View is comfortable sharing. The 37-year-old is married, has a 14-year-old daughter and works a day job in digital marketing. It’s just that in his spare time, he researches and writes about QAnon, a right-wing cult that follows an anonymous prophet called Q. They believe a global cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophiles secretly rule the world and will soon be brought down by President Donald Trump.

View, who records the podcast QAnon Anonymous and writes for the Washington Post, has become one of media’s foremost experts on the conspiracy theory — and any bit of info he provides about himself is another breadcrumb for QAnon to latch onto. “They keep trying to dig up dirt on me,” he says. “I’ve lived a fairly normie life, so they’ve been unsuccessful thus far.”

But View, a high-profile doubter, remains a thorn in QAnon’s side. And once their supposed Great Awakening finally occurs — the fabled day of reckoning — View will be a pariah, the voice of fake-news media who tried to prevent society from becoming a utopia. “I’ll be the guy who failed to cover up the truth,” he says.

What is the “truth,” exactly?

“It’s basically an apocalyptic fantasy,” View explains. “There’s gonna be a grand dramatic day in which the evil is revealed and purged of this earth, and then the rest of us can live more peaceable, freer, wealthier lives.” Q believers think this will arrive on April 10th, or maybe the 11th.

View is not too worried we’ll get to that point, though. Besides, we’ll have to survive the plague first.

Naturally, QAnon also has some theories about the coronavirus outbreak. One idea, which originated on the conspiracy-laden web board 8kun (formerly 8chan), uses the current COVID-19 pandemic and Trump’s recent announcement to “open the country back up” on Easter Sunday as further evidence that all the random “Q” theories can be tied up in a bow.

“They believe that there’s going to be 10 days of darkness, which might be a social media outage or something like that, starting on April 1st through the 10th,” View explains. “Then, after this, they’ll finally get the ‘Great Awakening.’”

What if the Awakening doesn’t happen as predicted? Most QAnon followers probably won’t change course. “If that change doesn’t come, some of the followers have made reference to what they call Plan Z,” View says. “If the whole Q operation fails, then Plan Z is sort of equivalent to what the far-right extremists call the ‘Boogaloo.’ Which is civil war, basically.”

Never mind that the entire pandemic caught QAnon by surprise. It’s funny, View says, because “they pride themselves on being more informed than the mainstream media. But they were caught flat-footed because Q, who is supposed to know everything that is going to happen, never mentioned anything about a pandemic until like two days ago. Plus, Trump obviously downplayed the seriousness of it until it became unavoidably serious.”

The group tends to remain steadfast even after repeated disappointment. View compares the movement to the Millerites, a 19th-century religious group that believed the world would end on October 22, 1844. “Of course, the day came and passed in the event that’s known as the Great Disappointment,” View says. “But instead of disbanding, they just morphed into the Adventist movement, which is now the Seventh-day Adventist Church and has millions of followers all over the world.”

And right now, View says, QAnon followers are “as enthusiastic as they have ever been.” The coronavirus definitely plays a part. “The general tenor of the country right now kind of matches their apocalyptic worldview,” he says, “so they’re very excited about the possibilities of this pandemic.”

One major opportunity as COVID-19 spreads and the death count rises: adding more followers.

“QAnon is very much an evangelical movement in that they want to win more people over to the cause,” View says. “And as things get crazier and more stressful, it’s prime conspiracy-theory recruiting time. The people on the left don’t trust the government. The people on the right don’t trust the mainstream media. People want answers, but because it feels like anything can happen, that anything is possible, they’re just a little bit more open to wild and false conspiracy theories. That’s what gives rise to these text-chain conspiracy theories — because if it sounds plausible, then that might be the case.”

Which is why the moment we’re in is so dangerous. The more emotional people are, the more likely they are to believe things based on how they feel more than anything else. Bizarre theories like Oprah being arrested for human trafficking can easily be debunked. But what if a QAnon fantasy begins to catch on at a time when disinformation can be fatal?

“When people get really invested in these beliefs, regardless of how demonstrably false or delusional they are, they don’t let them go,” View says. “Because they don’t believe it for rational reasons. They believe it because it fills an emotional void in their life.” 

What alarms View is that the movement is starting to gain a foothold in the front-row seats of American power. View knows that QAnon may be on the fringes, but they’re frighteningly adept at worming their way into the brains of mainstream conservative politicians — and then, potentially, into mainstream thought. 

“Whenever Trump retweets a QAnon person, or if anyone in Trump’s circle like Rudy Giuliani does, they see it as validation. So it has the potential to have more political power in the future,” View explains. Case in point: It’s already happening. “There’s a small town mayor up in Washington state who follows QAnon, and a number of QAnon-promoting candidates are set to appear on the national ballot here in November.” Those candidates are long shots, View says, but “as a political movement, it’s still worth tracking given how wholly detached from reality it is.” 

QAnon has already led to, and could potentially lead to more criminal domestic extremism. And when such incidents happen, View will be able to put back the pieces and understand where these conspiracies come from and why they take hold. He continues to track and catalog the group’s main promoters, their shaky theories and their evolving core beliefs.

For now, he feels he and his family are safe. Even though View has written for a large newspaper owned by Jeff Bezos, QAnon doesn’t see him as the enemy — yet. “I’m not connected to any of the power structures they see as the source of all evil,” he says. “They just see me as more misguided.”

He compares QAnon lore to Lord of the Rings: “It’s this big world full of characters and stories and backgrounds, and it’s very elaborate and interconnected. There’s also a certain pleasure and fun in trying to figure out how it all works and how it connects together.” Even though the “mythology and lore is delusional and fictional,” he says, “you can at least explain what their motivation was and where and how they came to believe what they believe.”

While some might find all this wholly distressing, View utilizes his experience in digital marketing to guide him. “It’s just a fascinating study in psychology and sociology, and how information spreads online,” he says. “Here are people who are behaving in these really irrational ways and coming up with these bizarre conclusions and predictions that fail, but that doesn’t dissuade them from believing.”

This Is Life in a Pandemic